California Gubernatorial Primaries Brings Tensions to Light


California gubernatorial candidates Assemblyman Travis Allen, State Treasurer John Chiang, businessman John Cox, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa debate at USC in January. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

On June 5, Californians will vote in the statewide direct primary elections, where they will decide which two gubernatorial candidates will compete in the November general election. The governor of California hold immense responsibility and will hold influence not only over the state, which currently has the world’s 6th largest economy, but the country as a whole. After the Democrats’ defeat in both the 2016 presidential and congressional elections, the party has looked to California as a leader in progressive policies. The next governor of California will have to navigate controversial issues such as immigration, drug reform, climate change, and gun control in an increasingly divided political climate and will likely find themselves at odds with federal policy. The governor will also have to deal with a variety of internal crises, including water management, increasing inequality, and skyrocketing housing prices. The next governor will have to navigate these enormous tensions and guide the state in a politically tumultuous era.

Democrat and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is the clear front-runner in the election. He has placed ahead in the polls consistently and enjoys more name recognition than his competitors. Newsom first rose to notoriety as mayor of San Francisco, where he ordered the city to distribute same-sex marriage licenses in 2004. A push for single payer healthcare is a central message of Newsom’s campaign. Newsom has also proposed an education initiative that begins with prenatal care and expands through two free years of community college. In response to California’s housing crisis, Newsom has proposed the creation of an unprecedented 3.5 million homes, along with a state tax credit to finance low-income housing and the elimination of regulations that make it difficult for developers to build middle income housing. Newsom will almost certainly finish first in the primaries and move onto the general election in November.

A recent poll showed that behind Newsom, two Republican candidates sit in second and third place. Due to California’s open primary system, in which the two candidates who receive the most votes in the midterm move onto the general election regardless of party, Republicans are often excluded from the race. The chance for one of their candidates to come in second place is exciting for the party; however, California Republicans make up only 25 percent of the state electorate and will need to unite around one candidate if they hope to be successful. Currently, John Cox holds the second place position. While Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, he now says he fully supports President Trump and has received the President’s endorsement. In third place sits Orange County assemblyman Travis Allen, an even more ardent Trump supporter. While both of these candidates deviate significantly from California’s liberal political norms, they have attracted the support of the state’s conservative Tea Party members by pushing against the establishment. The current success of these two radical Republican candidates demonstrates the political divide within even the consistently blue California.

Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa sits in fourth place, according to the most recent poll.

Villaraigosa, former assembly speaker and two-term Los Angeles mayor, presents a housing plan similar to Newsom’s, with an identical 3.5 million home goal. Villaraigosa also proposes a $10 billion loan to allow homeowners to convert garages into housing units or build stand-alone units on their property. Villaraigosa’s political past is full of contradictions. While he started his career as a labor organizer, he is known for his fight against labor unions in the midst of the Great Recession during his time as mayor. He now identifies as a pro-business progressive and states that he will fight for low-income and moderate California residents. While his progressive social stances may attract voters, his conflicting past actions regarding organized labor call into question his ability to combat California’s rising inequality.

Other notable candidates who have fallen behind in the polls include Democrats John Chiang and Delaine Eastin. Chiang was elected state treasurer in 2014 and has promoted his fiscal prudency throughout the campaign. Chiang became a hero to labor organizers in 2010 when he refused Governor Schwarzenegger’s furlough request for state workers during a budget crisis. Eastin served as the California Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1995 to 2003 and has made education a central issue to her campaign. She is the only female candidate who has attracted any significant attention. Unlike the other Democratic front-runners, Eastin supports the November ballot measure to allow for the expansion of rent control. Eastin is arguably the most liberal of the leading candidates, but seems to have lost name recognition due to the long gap between her time as superintendent and now.

As California’s primaries draw closer, the political tensions that define the state’s politics, from rising housing costs to divisions between the left and right, become more apparent. While it seems most likely that Newsom will take first place, the second place spot is still very much up for grabs. If one of the Republican candidates moves onto the general election, victory for Newsom will be almost guaranteed due to the left-leaning political climate of California; however, the participation and success of California’s Republican candidates draws attention to the growing distrust of the political establishment felt by many residents in an increasingly unequal California. The June primaries are vital, as they will determine what viewpoints will be represented in the general election. It is the responsibility of all California citizens to vote in the primaries.

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